TAIPEI (Reuters) - Planes are flying with many empty seats a month after daily direct flights began between political rivals Taiwan and China, and travel officials are urging that some of the restrictions in the landmark deal be loosened.
Taiwan and China launched more than 100 direct daily charter flights a week on December 15, a month before the busy Lunar New Year holiday season, underscoring how quickly ties have warmed under Taiwan’s pro-China President Ma Ying-jeou.
But restrictions on destinations and rowdy receptions to visiting Chinese envoys to Taiwan amid deepening financial gloom have thrown turbulence around the historic air links.
Flights are filling to only 71 percent of capacity, while Chinese tourism arrivals reached only 10 percent of projections last month, the Taiwan government said.
A lack of flights to popular Chinese cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, account for the low number of Taiwanese travelers, industry analysts say. They say too many serve secondary cities put on the map to stimulate tourism in lackluster areas.
“You have some routes that are driving down the average,” said Gary Chia, greater China co-head for Yuanta Securities.
Taiwan’s TransAsia Airways, for example, sees “room to expand” on flights from Taipei to the northeast China industrial city of Dalian, spokeswoman Janet So said.
“Dalian is a gateway to the northeast, but it’s new for Taiwanese so it needs time to introduce itself to tourists,” she said. TransAsia passenger loads average 70 to 80 percent.
China Airlines and Eva Airways, both based in Taiwan, also run charter flights. Major carriers from the other side include Air China and China Southern.
Taiwan travelers also want the rules changed to let them buy tickets more than a month ahead of takeoff and be spared the sudden destination changes that are allowed on charter flights.
To fly in more Chinese tourists, boosting the local economy, Taiwan’s hospitality industry wants China to let more people board direct flights by lowering a 10-person tour group minimum to five and allowing more Chinese agents to sell tickets.
“Opening direct flights hasn’t had much effect yet,” said Anthony Liao, a Taipei Association of Travel Agents official.
The global economic crisis, which has pushed the unemployment rate in Taiwan to a five-year high and has sent exports plunging by a record 42 percent, is also casting a pall over the travel industry.
Travel agents worry that Chinese tourists are also shunning Taiwan because protesters threatened China’s top negotiator on a Taipei visit in November and manhandled his deputy weeks earlier.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to the island. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
An average of 300 Chinese tourists visited Taiwan per day last month, down from November and far below the 3,000-person daily maximum billed by Taiwan officials as a way to help the ailing service sector, the island government says.
On a mid-January afternoon at Taipei’s Songshan Airport, only four tour groups came on three flights from China, leaving a travel information kiosk idle and brochures untouched.
Despite potential business around the January 26 Lunar New Year holiday, a huge travel season in China and Taiwan, officials from the two sides will allow only 40 extra flights per week, for 21 days, to leave China more aircraft for heavy internal demand [nPEK116653].
Flights between Taiwan and China, which are just 160 km (100 miles) apart, previously passed through a third region as regular direct links were banned as the two sides flirted with war.
Too much waiting around for smooth passage between the two sides could lead Taiwan’s public to question whether links with China can lift the island economy.
China and Taiwan are due early this year to rehash Beijing’s rules on tour group sizes and travel agents. An item on replacing charters with market-driven scheduled flights, effectively killing today’s technical issues, is seen on a later agenda.
“There will be a point where charter flights are no longer appropriate,” said Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei.
Editing by Nick Macfie and Bill Tarrant